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Teaching "All Men are Created Equal" (Part I)

The controversy over Critical Race Theory has animated teachers, school administrators and state legislators — not to mention parents. The former chancellor of the New York City schools, Richard Carranza, went so far as to proclaim that it was the duty of teachers to combat “toxic whiteness” — a disastrous term that was picked up by the New York Post.

One of the difficulties in discussing Critical Race Theory is that the term has become entwined with the ideas in Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. Endless disclaimers that Critical Race Theory (CRT) is about systemic rather than individual racism seem specious to those who conflate the idea with the so-called “anti-racism training” associated with DiAngelo, and the passive-aggressive personal confrontations offered in her training sessions. Educators and others are afraid of undoing the self-esteem of white students, and this is a legitimate concern. I imagine that many race-training sessions at workplaces are intimidating to adults, but the idea is even more of a danger to classroom teaching. No teacher should enter a classroom and announce that “I will be very cautious about this, but you need to understand that you all as individual white people are perpetuating racism in this country.” You cannot have a real discussion after that, no matter how gently you try to approach the subject. As a long-time teacher of American history, I hope to show that it is possible to discuss racism and the years of protests against it without intimidating students of color or white students.

This essay is dedicated to the students and teachers who want to cut through the controversy about teaching race and racism to confront the truths in American history with all its twists and turns, lights and shadows.

I was a teacher of American history for more than 30 years at a high school in Brooklyn, at several of the New York City community colleges, and Hunter and City College as an adjunct instructor. I taught abolition, slavery and Civil Rights, which consumed much of my class time from the first day to the last every semester. My students were a glorious mixture of nearly every race and color in New York City.

I treated them whatever their academic level as intellectuals-in-training by assigning them speeches and documents long and short for homework, which they had to bring to class the next day. I would not lecture, give them any questions to answer or ideas to look for when they read. Instead they were asked to  choose sentences they liked or disliked for what ever reason and made brief comments explaining their choices.

In some classes I had the kids write the first few words of their sentences on the blackboard and then we would discuss what they had chosen.  They read their whole sentence out loud and everyone read silently along with them. These were works by ML King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Madison Grant (one of the founders of scientific racism) and Barack Obama. I also taught a class in which we read only American speeches. My first question nearly every day we did these longish readings of 10 or 15 pages was for example, “What do you think about Frederick Douglass's “Fourth of July Oration?'' That would lead to a discussion that served as an introduction to the lesson before we turned to their sentences. We would do shorter documents – sometimes in class – one or two times a week and the longer ones twice in three weeks. In my high school classes I called this the Tarzan Theory of Reading because we were swinging through the document by grabbing on to sentence after sentence.

To teach you have to “bring the things before the eyes.” When we discussed the clause “ all men are created equal” the understanding came from the students that it embodies the hopes and dreams of every American and, simultaneously the nightmares of inequality and violence that people of color have been forced to live with in this country. I did this on the first day of every class when the students suggested events for a timeline from 1492 to 1865. They each would write down three events, I would ask students to volunteer one event, I would write them on the board and then we would discuss them as we went along. The Declaration of Independence and its most famous phrase always came up. When it came to teaching the American Revolution, I spent five days discussing the document and its implications for the Revolution and history up to the present. Whatever you think of the New York Times' 1619 Project with its attempt to de-emphasize the importance of the Declaration, it is still necessary to understand the most famous phrase in American, if not world history. Here is a brief description of my lessons on the Declaration concentrating on the last day in the sequence when we discussed the meanings of “all men are created equal.”

The first assignment for the series of  Declaration classes was to determine how many parts the document had -- keeping within a limit of five. Then the students were asked to find and underline the references to the Native Americans, the Stamp Act, the Boston Port Act, the Quebec Act and the Massachusetts Government Act. The last three were parts of the Intolerable Acts which caused the Americans to respond by forming the first Continental Congress in 1774. By narrowing down the Declaration structure to three parts, the students could see that in the middle part of the document all the sentences began with He or For. Those were the Grievances.

The students pointed out each of the grievances that they had underlined. We concluded that “For taxing us without our consent” was ambiguous. It could be the Stamp Act or the Navigation Acts, the Townshend Acts or the Tea Tax which was the motivation for the Boston Tea Party  in 1773. The Intolerable Acts were more straightforward to identify.  All of these details were parts of classes for the weeks prior to our study of the Declaration which was written in June and July of 1776, more than a year after the first battles of the American Revolution, Lexington and Concord in 1775. Originally celebrated as Patriots' Day in Boston on April 19 it began with the famous “shot heard 'round the world.”

Then I asked for a volunteer to read the first paragraph of the Declaration itself, which begins with “When in the Course of Human Events....” and ends with “impelled them to the separation” in their version. (The document I used was the version from the Yale Avalon 18th century document site.) When I asked them what they thought of the opening words, the students concluded that it is a theory of history: people make history. This is a description of agency, a key term for historians that describes how all peoples can take control of their fate. In our case, the Americans became revolutionaries by protesting the Stamp Act, and the Tea Act, and forming the First Continental Congress in response to the Intolerable Acts.

The first paragraph also discusses the laws of nature and nature's God that entitled the Americans to separate from Great Britain. Now a student reads the next few sentences which contain the clause “That all men are created equal” and list the unalienable  rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, “all men are created equal” is one of the natural laws like the right to life and liberty and, of course gravity, that are all on the same plane here: natural laws –- the laws discovered by Sir Isaac Newton that describe how the universe runs. We discussed the most famous clause, “all men are created equal,” by itself on the last day of the week.

At this point I hand out the part of the Declaration written by Thomas Jefferson that the Second Continental Congress dropped from the final version. It was the section that blamed the king for slavery in the 13 American colonies. Here is the beginning:

 He has waged cruel war against human nature itself violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. (T)his piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain.

As my students saw immediately, Thomas Jefferson described the slaves as humans with natural rights and he called slavery “cruel war.”   Clearly this omitted section was meant to be part of the grievances because the paragraph begins with “He.” Jefferson uses the phrase “piratical warfare” which might be obscure to readers today, but my students knew it referred to man-stealing, an abolitionist term for enslavement. They had read the five-page polemic “African Slavery in America,”  by Tom Paine  for the third day of class. Man-stealing is one of the key phrases in his abolitionist pamphlet published in 1775 by the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser. Jefferson also refers to the middle passage, which caused the enslaved people to suffer “miserable death” in their journey to North America. He also sarcastically called the slave trade the work of the “Christian King of  Great Britain,” who was practicing the “excreble commerce” of the “infidel powers:” the Spanish, Portuguese and Muslims who had preceded the British in the slave trade.  Now the hypocrisy of future president Jefferson becomes the topic of discussion; especially since his livelihood depended on the labor of hundreds of enslaved persons on two plantations. He blamed the king for foisting the slaves on the Americans and complained that the king was also

exciting those very people to rise in arms among us and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Such blatant hypocrisy was common for those defending system of slavery; especially in view of his words about equality and liberty for whites and blacks in this very document. The audacity of Jefferson to claim that “his” slaves were unfairly treated by the king and that the king was to blame for his (Jefferson's) own ill-gotten gains reminds me of a drug dealer who claims it is fine to sell drugs to “get over.” Of course he does not take them himself, which would be dangerous to his health. It takes a close reading of the phraseology in the quote above to figure out who were the slaves and who were the Patriots in the convoluted grievance. It is remarkable that almost all of the Declaration is clearly written. It is a prose poem that drives you on, in the same way the Gettysburg Address does. This omitted section is turgid.

Finally, we must point out why the Second Continental Congress rejected the grievance on slavery and the king. The Congress had agreed that the Declaration had to be unanimous in order to create a united front against the king and his army. But the slaveholders, led by South Carolina, refused to vote for the Declaration if it included the section criticizing slavery. It was left out of the final version.

What makes this intimate bond of Enlightenment idealism and rank racism a grievance is the argument that the king is encouraging the slaves of the Patriots (not the Loyalists, truth be told) to kill the revolutionaries to obtain their freedom as members of the British Army. The slaves of the Loyalists were not offered that opportunity by Lord Dunmore in his recently famous but misunderstood Proclamation of 1775. After all, the Loyalists were supporting the king, so they could keep their slaves. This idea in the section comes out in the final grievance that says “he has excited domestic (slave) insurrection among us” which Jefferson couples with a separate grievance condemning the king for encouraging the “merciless Indian savages” to wage war against the Patriots by murdering our people of “all ages, sexes and conditions.” Students are not used to reading the word “savages:” shocking language for a document about equality. It is an assault on modern sensibilities, but of course it was a common way to refer to the Native Americans.

So this class began with a discussion of the causes of the turmoil in the 1760s and '70s as examples of human agency, then moved to a description of unalienable rights based on nature or nature's God, then finally to a justification of the Revolution as part of natural law, and an inclusion of the idea “all men are created equal” as one of those natural laws. But, as has become apparent in context, all this is bound up with the deep hypocrisy about the contradiction of holding humans with natural rights in the bonds of what the slave holding founding father called the “cruel” and “piratical” war that we call chattel slavery.

At this point we have read only about 80 words at the beginning of the final version of the document.  

Part II of this essay will appear in the coming weeks on HNN.